A leading lady in a state that leads in education reform

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There's nothing timid about Lisa Graham Keegan. Ask Arizona's dynamic state superintendent of public instruction her opinion on any education topic, and you'll get it - absolutely unvarnished.

Teachers' unions? They exist to preserve jobs. Period. Local school boards? On a bad day, Ms. Keegan says, she'd suggest dismantling them all. Teaching methods that stray from strict adherence to the basics? Keegan can be scathing about "group-hug mentality" and "child-as-discoverer orthodoxy."

But just when she's beginning to sound like a dyed-in-the-wool conservative of the deepest shade, Keegan demonstrates the flexibility of thought that has won her friends at both ends of the political spectrum.

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When it comes to equity in education, Keegan issues a battle cry that could bring a roomful of liberals to their feet cheering. "Poor children in America are getting a raw deal, and anyone who says otherwise is lying," she says. "The fact that [the quality of public] education in this country has anything to do with wealth is absolutely despicable."

Welcome to Keegan's home state of Arizona, where the country's most liberal charter-school law holds sway, and school financing is being revolutionized. With Keegan at its educational helm, Arizona has become a leader in promoting school choice and freeing public charter schools from state regulation.

Those positions stem from a profoundly conservative desire to allow market forces free reign in the field of education. Such freedom has allowed schools of every persuasion to spring up, including some of the more experimental schools that Keegan scorns. But they are all kept in line by firm adherence to state standards and an unwavering attention to standardized test scores.

Keegan excels at articulating her position in a crisp, clear fashion. "She's media savvy, she's personable, she's just the kind of spokesperson you'd want for a movement," says Frederick Hess, education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

By appealing to both more liberal thinkers who want to see multiple forms of learning and teaching flourish, and to conservatives who embrace school choice as an ideological imperative, Keegan is "trying to straddle two worlds," says Professor Hess. "At least from the outside it looks like she's keeping her balls in the air competently, and she's managing it."

Keegan does not have the traditional background of an education policymaker. She's never taught in a public school classroom. She took a bachelor's degree in linguistics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and a master's in communications disorders at Arizona State University in Tempe. (She is, however, a product of the Scottsdale, Ariz. public school system, which today also serves her two youngest children.)

She worked as a speech pathologist before entering the political arena in 1990 as a state representative. For two years, while at the statehouse, she served as chair of the education committee and was a major force behind the state's 1994 charter school law. An interest in ensuring that the law was well implemented led her to run for her current position.

Keegan has been a magnet for media attention in Arizona, where a group of five women currently in top offices, including Gov. Jane Dee Hull, have been dubbed "the chicks in charge." But she is more than a local celebrity. As one of the founders of the Washington, DC-based Education Leaders Council - a group of reform-minded education leaders from several states - Keegan has attained stature that transcends Arizona's borders and is often mentioned as a rising star in the Republican's national ranks.

Despite her support for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid last year -and questions about her conservative credentials, such as her pro-choice stance on abortion -she was one of President Bush's top choices for Secretary of Education. (During Bush's candidacy, pundit George Will declared that Keegan should either be secretary of education in the next Republican administration or be added to the ticket as vice president.)

Keegan is not without detractors in her own backyard. Her tough talk about withholding diplomas from high school seniors who can't pass the state test by 2004 has been a source of controversy. And her strong words about teachers unions, combined with her lack of classroom experience, have caused some to lament that she alienates teachers.

But Keegan accepts neither rap. When it comes to testing, she insists that it's only a slender but outspoken minority of her constituents who don't support her reliance on state tests. As for teachers, she categorizes herself as a passionate supporter, a policymaker who'd like to see the free market enhance both the salaries and the prestige of the profession.

In fact, she says, one of the things she most appreciates about her position has been the opportunity to see teachers in action. At the same time, frequent trips to many public classrooms also cause her to regularly confront evidence of the inequity of the American system.

Although local control of school financing is generally viewed as a linchpin of conservative values, Keegan is a strong proponent of equal financing at the state level. "I want money stuffed into the kid's backpack because I want that kid to be so important that no school can afford to ignore him," she says.

Referring again to the transforming effect she believes school choice, free-market principles, and an equitable funding system could work, she insists: "It's a bad problem, but we don't have to wait to fix it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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